Vet exposes dark side of animal welfare industry
VET Peter Theron has exposed a horrible truth about his industy - the medication used to euthanise your pets works on desperate people too.
Peter has lost four colleagues and friends to suicide, in recent times.
The latest was last month.
The tragedies have affected him profoundly and motivated him to speak out about mental health issues faced by him and his colleagues.
"Sadly, vets often use the same medication that they dispense for their patients to euthanize themselves," the vet director of Green Cross Vets at Helensvale Square said.
"It's one of the most common cause of suicide among vets."
Dr Theron - ranked one of the top 10 vets on the Gold Coast - has called for more openness in his profession about mental health issues, as well as training at universities in how to manage grief and emotional connections.
He and others in the industry are concerned about the alarmingly high suicide rate among vets, whose risk is twice as high as other health professionals and four times higher than the general population.
Need to talk? Help is available - call 13 11 14.
Experts say contributing factors include physical and verbal abuse from pet owners, long working hours, low pay, compassion fatigue, pet euthanasia and access to schedule drugs.
"In our profession, we're acutely aware of death and it's offered as a treatment option for pets - to put a humane end to their suffering," Dr Theron said.
"Unfortunately, vets themselves get emotionally and physically tired. Some will consider euthanasia as an option for themselves."
Like too many other vets on the Gold Coast, Dr Theron struggles with anxiety and depression, triggered by the demands of his high-pressure job.
"We work in a fast-paced environment. Clinics are usually loud and there are multiple things going on at the same time," he said.
"I can do up to 16 consults a day and on top of that, there will be one or two surgeries and a euthanasia with a pet I've journeyed with for a long time."
This could be followed by a consultation with a young puppy, which all contributed to an emotional rollercoaster.
To add to the stress, he said pet owners often had unrealistic expectations of what vets could achieve and many queried bills, believing them to be too high.
"Yet, we have low profit margins. I drive a small car and I work long hours," he said.
A vet graduate starts on a salary of $53,000 - after seven years of study - and can expected to earn about $80,000 a few years later.
"This job is not about the money but often we are physically and emotionally exhausted, and can't help wondering if it's worth it," Dr Theron said.
"I have been threatened by owners, who say they will report me to the Australian Veterinary Board or making a social media complaint in order to leverage treatment - or for me to give then back their money when a surgery or treatment has failed.
"So, it can really get hard sometimes."
Dr Theron said other factors which contributed to vet suicide included working with difficult, unruly animals and vets' high level of perfectionism.
"We are our biggest critics. We have to be doctors, dentists, optometrists, soft tissue surgeons and so on, for our patients.
"We also have a lot of pressure from the Australian Veterinary Board, so there is always that gold standard to aspire to.
"Pets can't talk, so we have to figure out what's wrong and sometimes, we have to treat on best guess, but you can't help but getting emotionally invested."
Dr Theron said he protected his wellbeing by taking mental health days and he called on other vets to speak up about their mental health.
He called for more training at universities in how to deal with grief and the emotional connection.
"At Greencross, we're fortunate to have an employees' assistance program, which offers four free consultations with a psychologist and we're introducing a mental health first aid trainer," he said.
"I have undergone this and am due this year for a refresher course. Our plan is to have our practice manager, vet director or someone passionate about mental health undergo that training."
Paradise Point vet Dr John Rigley - another top 10 vet finalist - said vets were generally over-achievers, who wanted the best possible outcomes.
"This is sometimes unachievable when you're dealing with a living being and when things don't go well for whatever reason - even reasons out of our control - we take it personally," he said.
"It hangs around for days or weeks and vets forget about all the good things they've done. It can be a downward spiral from there," he warned.
Dr Rigley said vets also did not get enough downtime.
"It doesn't mean the job ends just because a clinic is closed," he said. "Most vets go home thinking about cases, or researching cases and surgery for the next day. They fixate on things."
He said most vets took criticism too personally - usually at emotional times.
"Some attacks are personal - often because clients need to vent - and the vet just has to take the brunt of it," Dr Rigley said.
"And after every consult, we have to bounce back for the next client, regardless of
what the last consult was - a euthanasia or a sick patient."
President of the Australian Veterinary Association Dr Julia Crawford said she was deeply concerned about the high suicide rate of vets.
She called for more compassion towards them and said pet owners should be aware they were doing their best for their animals.
"They should also be aware of the effect of their accusations and of not showing compassion towards vets," she said.
"In the past, we were more accepting of death but now, people think everything can be saved - even a very old pet of 21 - and sadly, it can't."
Dr Crawford said a lot of the grief and anger that accompanied death was thrown on to vets.
"In most cases, vets are aware that it's the grief that's talking, but it still hurts," she said.
"Afterwards, vets will always think, 'Was there anything else I could have done to save a life?'
"This can spiral into poor mental health, especially if he or she is tired.
"Vets know how to successfully accomplish suicide and their first attempt is often successful."
She said vets also had to cope with financial pressures and large HECS debts. The association was thus working hard to improve ward rates and working conditions.
"We also have a plan for mental health first aid training at every practice in Australia. It's a very good program that teaches how to recognise the signs of mental distress and how to help those people."
Dr Crawford said the ASA had also launched a number of other initiatives to protect the mental health of vets and offered a free telephone counselling service to all members.
If you are thinking about suicide or experiencing a personal crisis help is available.
No one needs to face their problems alone. Help is available - call 13 11 14.